Break Down Language Barriers for Non-English-Speaking Residents
According to the 2000 census, approximately 25 million adults living in the United States depend on friends and family members to translate everything from food labels to rental leases. Language issues have created considerable challenges for low-income housing site managers to ensure that residents and prospects clearly understand applications, leases, and other crucial residential forms.
Since publishing its limited English proficiency (LEP) guidance in the Federal Register two years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been working steadily to assist housing providers by providing a framework that sites can use to determine how best to comply with statutory and regulatory obligations to provide meaningful access to benefits, information, services, and programs for LEP individuals.
HUD has translated several vital documents, including Section 8 model leases, which are now available in 12 different languages on the HUD Web site (http://www.hud.gov), housing discrimination brochures, fair housing posters, rent determination fact sheets, lead paint safety guide, and more.
Although the LEP requirements under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to 100 percent tax credit projects, sites in which LIHTC units also receive project-based Section 8 or any other federal financial assistance are subject to Title VI, and HUD's LEP guidance would apply, according to Bryan Greene, HUD's general deputy assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
Whether or not Title VI applies, Greene believes that it is a good business practice to ensure that persons who do not speak English as their first language have access to and understand their rights.
How to Assess Meaningful Access for LEP Persons
How do you know whether your site is providing meaningful access for LEP applicants and residents? Sites are required to use a four-factor analysis to determine whether and how much translation of vital documents and oral interpretation is required. The factors are:
1. The number or proportion of LEP persons served or encountered in the population eligible for services;
2. The frequency with which LEP persons come in contact with the program;
3. The nature and importance of the program, activity, or service provided by the program; and
4. The resources available and costs to the site.
To see how your site fares, see our Model Form: Use Self-Assessment to Check Progress in Providing Language Assistance.
To determine the number and proportion of LEP individuals for her firm's properties, Sandra Aldrich relies on two key sources: census information for the area that the properties serve and the LEP statistics within the properties. Aldrich is occupancy director for Danville Development Corp., which manages 13 HUD-assisted properties in Utah and Wyoming.
To gauge the number and types of languages spoken within your site(s), Aldrich recommends using the Census Bureau's “I Speak” language identification cards (which can be downloaded at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/cor/Pubs/ISpeakCards2004.pdf). The card lists in 38 languages the phrase: “Check this box if you read or speak __________.”
“We made copies of the card and gave them to each of our tenants with a memo asking them to check the appropriate languages,” Aldrich says. “If they felt that English was their primary language, they could check that on the memo.”
Aldrich overlaid the property statistics with the area statistics to come up with the proportion of LEP persons served.
Offer Written Translation and Oral Interpretation
One of the most important steps in providing meaningful access to housing programs is to ensure that LEP people have access to the most critical documents in their native language. Vital documents may include:
Notices of eligibility criteria;
Consent and complaint forms;
Lease and attachments;
Rules of conduct;
Notices of public hearings;
Denial, loss, or decreases in benefits.
HUD as adopted a “safe harbor” for the translation of written materials. The LEP guidance identifies actions that will be considered strong evidence of compliance with Title VI obligations (see the box, Safe Harbor for Written Translations).
It's important to understand, however, that the translated documents are for information purposes only, stresses Greene. “The English-version lease is still the legal document that all residents must sign, but obviously, before you can sign a document saying that you understand and agree to the content, you have to be able to read it,” he says. The translated lease can be appended to the English-version lease to demonstrate that the terms of the lease have been communicated and understood by the individual.
Greene also recommends that sites post signs or have counter cards—in the languages that are commonly spoken in the community—informing the public that the translated documents are available, as well as any other interpretive services, such as bilingual staff. Make it clear that the services are free, so that there are no misunderstandings about possible fees or costs.
In addition to written translation of key documents, sites need to provide oral language services. Aldrich's properties have made oral language services available through bilingual staff and by hiring interpreters. She draws many of her resources from the local community, which charge little to no fees for their services—for instance, community agencies, ethnic outlets, community volunteers, college and university language departments, and other agencies, such as workforce services. She also recommends networking and sharing resources with other properties in the community.
Many times, prospects will bring a family member to translate for them. Aldrich cautions against using this method as a sole means of interpretation. “If they bring their own family member, we have no control over how accurate the translation will be,” she says. “And we need to be careful about children translating for their parents or older relatives. It's unlikely that they will understand some of the technical terms that we want to communicate.”
If an LEP applicant insists on using a family member to translate, she suggests offering to bring in an interpreter, as well. If they decline the translation service, be sure that it is documented.
PRACTICAL POINTER: Train all site staff on what types of language services are available, how to obtain those services, and how to respond to inquiries by LEP people by phone, written communications, or in person.
Develop a Plan for Consistency
Aldrich has developed a formal Language Assistance Plan (LAP) to document and support her properties' efforts. “We feel that it helps us to be consistent—and consistency is very important,” she says. “The LAP also documents the efforts that we're making.”
Sites have a great deal of flexibility in developing LAPs. According to HUD, there is no requirement or deadline for developing one. However, it adds that “a HUD review of a recipient will look at the totality of its program to date, whether the recipient has taken ‘reasonable steps’ in providing equal access to persons who are LEP, and whether they have conducted a four-factor analysis to determine need.”
As Aldrich points out: “It shows that we're giving our best effort. We don't have all the answers, but we need to start somewhere, and then build on that.”
Sandra Aldrich: Occupancy Director, Danville Development Corp.; (801) 316-1120; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Safe Harbor for Written Translations
HUD has adopted a “safe harbor” for translation of written materials. In the Federal Register (FR-4878-N-01), HUD states that the following actions will be considered strong evidence of compliance with the site's written translation obligation:
Property provides written translation of vital documents for each eligible LEP language that constitutes 5 percent or 1,000 individuals, whichever is less, of the population of persons eligible to be served or likely to be affected or encountered. Translation of other documents can be provided orally; or
If 5 percent of the population of persons eligible to be served or likely to be affected or encountered is less than 50 individuals, the recipient may instead provide written notice in the primary language of the LEP group of the right to receive competent oral interpretation of the written materials at no cost to the LEP person.
Note that there is no safe harbor for oral interpretation. In fact, HUD guidance clarifies that no matter how few LEP persons the site is serving, oral interpretation services should be made available in some form. Depending on the circumstances, reasonable oral interpretation assistance might be an in-person or telephone service line interpreter.
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